Last Updated on February 5, 2021 by Katherine Dittmann, MA, MS, RD
It can be scary to relearn how to eat intuitively and shockingly easy to forget, even after just a few months of a restrictive diet. These regimes usurp the powers of choice and self trust when making food decisions. The diet tells you when to eat, making your hunger cues irrelevant. It tells you how much to eat, making your fullness cues moot. It tells you what to eat, and more sinisterly, what not to eat, snuffing out the final candle on your inner intuitive eater.
But how are you supposed to just drop all the rules and restrictions and start listening to your body again? Advice to just eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full is confusing because you may not remember the last time you paid attention to that. Plus, it’s unlikely that your body is sending you reliable cues at all. Not to mention the uncomfortable feelings that surface around hunger and fullness. Add in food fears and distrust and it’s no wonder people struggle making the leap from rigid diets to attuned eating.
Enter the meal plan. Of its many forms, the most common meal plan uses what is called the exchange system. Stated simply, the exchange system standardizes portions creating equivalents within a food group. Using a system like this takes care of the eating foundations of adequacy and balance, leaving variety up to the individual. Depending on a person’s goals, the meal plan can serve a few different functions.
The meal plan as a place holder: While you are learning to listen to your body’s feedback and trust it again, the meal plan can serve as an objective tool on which to base food choices. The dietitian assigns a number of exchanges from different food groups per meal and you just make selections using the list of equivalencies. As long as you follow the plan, you won’t eat too little or too much nor over- or under-do it with one food group. As you begin to develop trust in yourself and your body and become more attuned to its signals, you can slowly transition away from the exchanges.
The meal plan as a tool for weight gain: Weight restoration is no joke for people who have taken an eating disorder to that extreme. The process requires consistency and strategic planning to consume an adequate diet to gain at a steady rate. Here, the meal plan is like a lighthouse, something to have trust in that will guide you in the right direction.
The meal plan for regulating the appetite: Chaotic eating patterns, characterized by periods of fasting or restricting coupled with periods of normal or binge eating can disrupt natural hunger cues. By natural, I mean those that develop with fairly consistent eating. When we eat about the same amount at the same time with the same frequency, the body syncs up to this pattern by sending regular hunger cues when it expects to be fed and fullness cues when it normally stops getting fed. Once both body and behaviors are synchronized, eating intuitively can happen more naturally.
The meal plan for actual meal planning: Some people have gone for lengthy periods skipping whole food groups or just not eating enough at meals. They may have forgotten what a normal meal looks like. A meal plan can provide a framework into which to plug foods to create an adequate and balanced meal. All that is left to do is evaluate the plate: do I have enough protein? Fat? Carbohydrate? Do I need fruit or a vegetable or dairy? Are my portions enough? Too much?
Consistency is an integral part of attuned eating. Just like a cat that wakes you up every morning to get fed or a dog that begs at its bowl at the same time every night, human bodies adapt to the availability of food. They work best when they know what to expect. Otherwise, we add a level of unnecessary stress that can have deleterious effects on the body. Furthermore, hunger signals are so uncomfortable, in part, to strongly motivate us to eat. Remember, your body’s main objective is to keep you alive.
Lunch is the fulcrum
Some people like to eat by the clock. Others choose to eat every 3-4 hours. But in our busy lives, these guidelines can trip us up. What if your schedule is different every day? What if you sleep in or stay up late now and then? As important as consistency is, it isn’t very realistic. Some degree of flexibility is imperative. Therefore, another way to plan the timing of meals is by making your midday meal (lunch) the fulcrum upon which all other meals and snacks are balanced.
Let’s say you usually have time for lunch between noon and 1 pm. If nothing else, keep this time consistent. Then, if your other mealtimes change, you can decide whether you will need to bridge the meals with a snack (or two). This practice is especially helpful when transitioning into intuitive eating. Knowing that the goal is to be reasonably hungry at meals, you plan your meals and snacks accordingly. It might sound like this:
“Hmmm. I usually have breakfast at 8:00, but I slept until 9:00. Well, lunch is at about 12:30, so I’d better eat a big enough meal now so that I’m not too hungry by the time lunch rolls around.”
Or it could sound like this:
“Our dinner reservations aren’t until 8:00 tonight, but I normally eat at around 6:30. Since lunch is at 12:30, it makes sense to have two snacks this afternoon so I’m not starving by dinner. Maybe I won’t have my evening snack in this case.”
See how easy that is?
No one in the world knows what you should eat better than you. Maybe you relinquished all decision-making to a diet or an eating disorder or let your emotions drive your eating more than your body. It’s OK. It happens to most people at one time or another. The good news is that your body will remember once you start to tune in, listen, and give it a chance to sync up again. Who knows? Maybe a short-term meal plan is just the solution to bridging the gap between rules and freedom?
Want to learn more about how a meal plan might work for you? Contact me here and we can explore it further.